Most people hope for heavenly rewards from their religion. The Bhagavatam begins by rejecting that idea.

By Satyaraja Dasa

The scripture known as the ripe fruit of the Vedas frowns upon even religious practices motivated by the attainment of heaven, not to speak of lesser goals.

Srila Prabhupada taught that the Bhagavad-gita, with its tripartite division of material nature, detailed philosophy of the soul, and introductory teachings about bhakti, represents the ABCs of spiritual life and that Srimad-Bhagavatam (also known as the Bhagavata Purana) is the postgraduate study. The Bhagavatam picks up where the Gita leaves off. While the Gita tells us that Krishna is God, for example, giving us basic information about Him, the Bhagavatam goes further, describing just who Krishna is in terms of both His Godhood and His activities in the spiritual realm. It takes us far beyond the generalities of religion.

External Dharma vs. Internal Dharma

People practice religion for a host of good reasons – and some bad ones too. Many simply see it as part of their family inheritance. They are born into it, and they adopt certain labels and practices in their own lives, usually to whatever degree their forebears do, without giving it much thought.

Some use it to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, often to the point of thinking themselves better than others who hold different beliefs. This attitude has even led to wars.

Still others embrace religion for more noble reasons: inner peace, psychological empowerment, stability, and existential meaning. Or they simply want to be good people.

Overall, religion involves a particular outlook on life (philosophy), ways of seeing humans and other species (biological anthropology), perceptions of hidden realities (mysticism), rules of personal conduct (ethics, morals), perspectives on our external universe (cosmology), and, often, belief in a supreme divinity (theology).

In the twenty-first century nearly seventy-five percent of all humans identify as belonging to an organized religious tradition, though a new phenomenon is arising in the ranks of believers. The sobriquet “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), also known as “spiritual but not affiliated” (SBNA), has been gaining ground for roughly a decade. Due to the failures of religious institutions, an increasing number of people now identify as believing in the essence of spirituality without aligning with an organized religion. They want a spirituality independent of any institution or established creed. Approximately seventy million Americans – nearly one in five – identify as being spiritual but not religious, and the statistics in other Western countries follow close behind.

A similar phenomenon exists in the Vaishnava world. The saragrahi (“essence-grasping”) Vaishnavas, who come in a line of pure devotees, embrace the essence of religious thought but eschew external designations. They favor a nonsectarian, universal view of religion. Although identifying as “Vaishnavas,” they do so because they see the word not as a designation for a particular religious tradition, but as the intrinsic nature of the soul – all living beings are eternal servants of Krishna, which is what the word “Vaishnava” really means. Srila Prabhupada founded ISKCON to teach people this broad, nonsectarian spiritual vision.

Prabhupada often spoke about external dharma (religiosity) versus internal dharma (surrender to God). He would cite Krishna, who throughout most of the Bhagavad-gita lovingly explains the principles and purposes of standard religiosity, which includes how to live in the world, the proper procedures of a life permeated by goodness, and so on. But then, as the Gita comes to a close, Krishna advises Arjuna to abandon the accoutrements of dharma, to see that the essence of all dharma is to surrender unto Him and that all the other instructions are merely maidservants to that one central teaching.

All of this may serve as an introduction to the Bhagavatam, a scripture that brings its students to the highest spiritual levels. This is because “Srimad-Bhagavatam transcends religiosity” (SBTR), a natural, transcendental extension of SBNR.

The Bhagavatam (1.2.6) encourages adherence to universal religious principles that lead to love of God: “The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which one can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” Clearly, it is purity of purpose that undergirds the Bhagavatam’s system of religion. In addition, it offers unparalleled, detailed knowledge of just who God is and how He interacts with the inhabitants of the spiritual world.

The Road to Perfection

The Bhagavatam’s uniqueness can be narrowed down to two points: It is pure, promoting selfless intentions, and it conveys the inner life of God as no other scripture does.

Regarding the Bhagavatam’s purity, in its second verse (of approximately eighteen thousand), we learn its central method and profound standard: “All so-called religiosity covered by fruitive intentions is completely rejected herein (dharmah projjhita-kaitavah atra).” That is to say, the Bhagavatam gives little credence to the superficial reasons with which people generally approach religion. Those lesser reasons may be seen as stepping stones to the Bhagavatam’s enhanced spirituality, but if one wants true spirituality, one must eschew selfish motives and the desire for personal gain.

The selfish motives (or purushartha – “human goals”) are generally listed as four: dharma (in the sense of ordinary duty or religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). The Bhagavatam tells us that while these goals have a place in the material world, they are obstacles for one pursuing true transcendence. The affairs of the mundane world, as alluring as they are, will deter us from the spiritual nectar we ultimately aspire for. Thus, over time – usually lifetimes – the living being becomes frustrated with religiosity, acquisition, and sense gratification, and then the desire for moksha, liberation, awakens. This awakening is usually the beginning of a serious spiritual pursuit.

Traditionally, moksha was considered the highest goal of human life, and it remains so for most Hindus. Indeed, most religions, even if engaging their own language and concepts, also aspire for moksha, release from material bondage, considering it the end of karmic suffering and the doorway to heaven. People commonly seek eternal happiness through religion.

It should be clear, however, that as long as self-interest exists, as long as we attempt to secure our own bliss before offering selfless loving service to God (bhakti), we are never truly free. We are bound by personal desire, however subtle, and as long as there is even a tinge of selfish desire, there will always be suffering. Therefore the sages point us to the Bhagavatam, and in the text itself (12.13.18) we learn why:

Srimad-Bhagavatam is the spotless Purana. It is most dear to the Vaishnavas because it describes the pure and supreme knowledge of the saintly souls. This Bhagavatam reveals the means for becoming free from all material work, together with the processes of transcendental knowledge, renunciation and devotion. Anyone who seriously tries to understand Srimad-Bhagavatam, who properly hears and chants it with devotion [bhakti], becomes completely liberated.

“Because Srimad-Bhagavatam is completely free of contamination by the modes of nature,” Prabhupada’s disciples write in their commentary, “it is endowed with extraordinary spiritual beauty and is therefore dear to the pure devotees of the Lord. The word paramahamsyam indicates that even completely liberated souls are eager to hear and narrate Srimad-Bhagavatam. Those who are trying to be liberated should faithfully serve this literature by hearing and reciting it with faith and devotion.”

Thus, while tradition generally emphasizes four purusharthas, culminating in moksha, the Bhagavatam takes us beyond ordinary liberation, which it disparages as an undesirable goal. The Bhagavatam introduces us instead to the fifth and ultimate goal of life, the real goal: devotional service to the Lord.

Bhakti: The Highest Attainment

Of the four purusharthas, the Vedic sages considered only moksha spiritual. It was known as the parama-purushartha, the “highest human goal.” And that is indeed true for the average person. But the Bhagavatam tells us that this understanding is shortsighted because bhakti is actually the parama-purushartha, as mentioned above (“supreme occupation,” parah dharmah, 1.2.6).

Following the Bhagavatam, the Goswamis of Vrindavan highlighted this same notion, explaining that the four purusharthas – including liberation – were practically useless in comparison to bhakti. They referred to transcendental devotion as the fifth goal of life (pañcama-purushartha) and a state of being that is unsurpassable.

Srila Rupa Goswami, for example, tells us that devotion is “heavy,” as in having depth, whereas liberation is “light,” meaning that it is no great accomplishment. In his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.1.17) he writes that compared to bhakti, “liberation is as light as can be (moksha-laghutakrit).” He lauds bhakti’s superiority to everything else: “Even if the bliss of Brahman were magnified a hundred trillion times, it would not be equal to an infinitesimal droplet of the ocean of bhakti’s bliss.” (1.1.38)

Echoing the words of the Goswamis, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, in his Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 7.84–85), writes: “Religiosity, economic development, sense gratification and liberation are known as the four goals of life, but before love of Godhead, the fifth and highest goal, these appear as insignificant as straw in the street. For a devotee who has actually developed bhava [a high level of bhakti], the pleasure derived from dharma, artha, kama and moksha appears like a drop in the presence of the sea.” He summed up the idea earlier: “Devotional service unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the highest perfection of human activity.” (Madhya 6.184)

This, then, is what the Bhagavatam has to offer – the ultimate goal of life, shunning all subordinate derivatives.

Bhagavan Sri Krishna

Bidding adieu to all lesser goals, rejecting the impurity born of material desire, the Bhagavatam emphasizes selfless devotion. But devotion to whom?

The entire Bhagavatam leads to an understanding and appreciation of Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The first nine cantos (out of twelve) are full of genealogies, philosophy, heroes and villains, incarnations of God, and so on, all serving to prepare the reader for what is to come. The ultimate conclusion is Krishna’s divine pastimes – ninety chapters of pure revelation introducing God in His most confidential and intimate feature.

Early in the First Canto (1.3.28) we are told that Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead from whom all other manifestations arise (krishnas tu bhagavan svayam), and we return to Krishna in the Tenth Canto, learning about His glorious manifest pastimes from start to finish.

Prabhupada writes in his preface to the Bhagavatam, “The Tenth Canto is distinct from the first nine cantos because it deals directly with the transcendental activities of the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna. One will be unable to capture the effects of the Tenth Canto without going through the first nine cantos. The book is complete in twelve cantos, each independent, but it is good for all to read them in small installments, one after another.”

In his purport to text 1.1.2 he writes:

Less fortunate persons are not at all interested in hearing this Srimad-Bhagavatam. The process is simple, but the application is difficult. Unfortunate people find enough time to hear idle social and political conversations, but when invited to attend a meeting of devotees to hear Srimad-Bhagavatam they suddenly become reluctant. Sometimes professional readers of the Bhagavatam immediately plunge into the confidential topics of the pastimes of the Supreme Lord, which they seemingly interpret as sex literature. Srimad-Bhagavatam is meant to be heard from the beginning. Those who are fit to assimilate this work are mentioned in this shloka: “One becomes qualified to hear Srimad-Bhagavatam after many pious deeds.” The intelligent person, with thoughtful discretion, can be assured by the great sage Vyasadeva that he can realize the Supreme Personality directly by hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam. Without undergoing the different stages of realization set forth in the Vedas, one can be lifted immediately to the position of paramhamsa [transcendentalist] simply by agreeing to receive this message.

The Bhagavatam is known as the literary incarnation of God. It is the Lord’s svarupa, His internal, spiritual form:

The Bhagavatam’s first and second cantos are Lord Krishna’s feet, and the third and fourth cantos are His thighs. The fifth canto is His navel, the sixth canto is His chest, and the seventh and eighth cantos are His arms. The ninth canto is His throat, the tenth His blooming lotus face, the eleventh His forehead, and the twelfth His head.

I bow down to that Lord, the ocean of mercy, whose color is like that of a tamala tree and who appears in this world for the welfare of all. I worship Him as the bridge for crossing the unfathomable ocean of material existence. Srimad-Bhagavatam has appeared as His very self.

(Padma Purana, as quoted in Gaudiya-vaishnava-kanthahara)

Why should one reject the topmost path of spirituality offered in the Bhagavatam, along with its intimate knowledge of the Lord’s original form? Instead, the wisest and most spiritually evolved people will dive deeply into the text and the path it espouses, allowing themselves entrance into the highest level of transcendence. Follow the advice of the author, Srila Vyasadeva, who writes in the third verse of the text (as translated by Srila Prabhupada in Chaitanya-charitamrita): “Srimad-Bhagavatam is the essence of all Vedic literatures, and it is considered the ripened fruit of the wish-fulfilling tree of Vedic knowledge. It has been sweetened by emanating from the mouth of Shukadeva Goswami. You who are thoughtful and who relish mellows should always try to taste this ripened fruit. O thoughtful devotees, as long as you are not absorbed in transcendental bliss, you should continue tasting this Srimad-Bhagavatam, and when you are fully absorbed in bliss, you should go on tasting its mellows forever.”